Haydar Khan: Forefather of Iran’s left and progressive movement

by Payam Solhtalab

Haydar Khan (also known as Haydar Amu Oghli) was a leading left-wing revolutionary and key presence in the early 20th century Constitutional Revolution of Iran, a major figure in the country’s history, and widely regarded as the forefather of the modern left and progressive movement that abides there despite the horrific repression meted out by successive ruling regimes.

Haydar Khan was born on 20 December 1880 in Orumiyeh, West Azarbaijan province, Iran (then Persia), to Afshar Turk parents. In 1886, his family moved to Alexandropol (present-day Gyumri), in Armenia, which was then part of the Tsarist Empire. Haydar Khan received training in electrical engineering in Yerevan and Tbilisi. It is believed that he became acquainted with socialist politics while he was a student at Tbilisi Polytechnic University.

I had only one purpose in mind, which was to show the people of Khorasan [Iran] who had little to no education or [political] consciousness that [the official] was also just an ordinary human being.

In 1901 he was invited to work in Iran on the setting-up of an electrical plant that would service the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. Having arrived back in the country of his birth as a relatively inexperienced young man with a limited command of Farsi (Persian), his political awakening continued apace – spurred on by his profound sense of affinity with the ordinary folk of Iran with whom he broke bread, as well as his growing indignation at their condition and the terrible injustices they faced on a daily basis under what essentially remained a situation of feudalism. Witnessing a local Agha, Saham-ol-mulk Motavalibashi, humiliating a peasant in public, Haydar Khan gave the official a dressing-down in front of a crowd of stunned onlookers. He recalled the incident in his memoirs, stating, “I had only one purpose in mind, which was to show the people of Khorasan [Iran] who had little to no education or [political] consciousness that [the official] was also just an ordinary human being.”

Following this incident, Haydar Khan relocated to Tehran in 1903 to work at the capital’s first electricity plant owned by Qajar businessman, Haj Amin al-Zarb. He arrived in a city the air of which ran thick with radical fervour, with the Constitutional Revolution of Iran about to get underway. This revolution, between 1905 and 1911, led to the establishment of a parliamentary system, constitutional monarchy, and the abolition of the model of absolute monarchy. The revolution was also the first of its kind in either the Middle East or Islamic world.

Throughout the course of the Constitutional Revolution, Haydar Khan, by now more experienced and resourceful, campaigned on the side of those advocating for the curtailment – if not complete abolition – of monarchical rule, the supremacy of the parliamentarians, as well as an equitable and just political order in Iran. He stood firmly against the various conservative forces that sought to reinstate an absolute monarch, otherwise roll back on the advancements and gains made by the revolutionaries, or else service their own private interests – whether they were envoys of the shah, reactionary clerics, or turncoat former constitutionalists. Indeed, he was implicated in the neutralisation of several of these counterrevolutionary threats. The end of the revolution came in December 1911, when the shah’s loyalists expelled all deputies from parliament reportedly with the assistance of some 12,000 Russian troops.

The tumult that greeted the 1917 October Revolution provided Haydar Khan and his supporters with the opportunity to regroup. That same year, the Edalat (Justice) Party was formed in Baku by pro Bolshevik members of the Social Democratic Party of Iran. Edalat soon established branches in several Iranian cities, attracting a significant following.

Meanwhile, the defeat of the Constitutional Revolution served to heighten the resolve of several of its former participants – some of whom concluded that the reforms they envisioned might be more effectively pursued at a provincial level, serving as a springboard for revolutionary change countrywide. Provincial movements emerged led by Mohammad Khiabani in Azarbaijan, Mohammad-Taqi Khan Pesyani in Khorasan, and Mirza Kuchak Khan in Gilan.

Having formed an alliance with Mirza Khan’s Jangali (Foresters) movement, Edalat convened a congress in Anzali, Gilan, in June 1920 at which the party’s name was changed to the Communist Party of Iran* (CPI, also known as the Communist Party of Persia). While Haydar Khan was not at the congress, he nonetheless exerted significant influence as the leader of the internal current that argued for a more careful, moderate, and pragmatic line – based on Iran’s material pre-capitalist condition – in contrast with the stress on an immediate and outright socialist revolution advocated by the other tendency. He correctly concluded that the conditions were not yet ripe for a socialist revolution, as opposed to a national revolution, and thus Iranian progressives ought to support the national bourgeoisie – and even the zamindars (landowners) – for the time being, provided they opposed British imperialism.

Within barely two months, a catastrophic split had taken place within the Jangali movement between its more conservative-oriented wing, led by Mirza Khan, and its left wing, which had close ties to the more radical tendency within the CPI. Divisions had been particularly sharp over the question of agrarian reform and land redistribution. This led to Mirza Khan abandoning the provincial government and withdrawing with his men to the forests to rally in anticipation of a showdown.

Then, in September 1920, the Congress of the Peoples of the East was held in Baku. The events in Gilan were much in discussion and the Iranian delegation was significant, comprising 202 out of the 2,050 delegates in attendance. The delegation was led by none other than Haydar Khan, who greatly impressed Lenin. The hitherto more radical faction of the CPI’s leadership was sidelined at the congress and a second Central Committee, to be led by Haydar Khan, was elected in its place with its immediate priority being to end the standoff in Gilan and rebuild the progressive coalition with the Jangali movement.

Haydar Khan was tasked with personally overseeing the rapprochement with Mirza Khan. Despite jubilant public announcements of the proposed reconciliation, the internal distrust and infighting in Gilan continued – fuelled further by British imperialist black propaganda. Mirza Khan became increasingly wary of the growing popularity of Haydar Khan as well as his calls for a programme of nationalisation in favour of the peasantry. In late September 1921, Haydar Khan was invited to meet with Mirza Khan. However, enroute to the proposed meeting, his convoy was ambushed. Having survived the initial attack, Haydar Khan was captured and murdered during the fall of Rasht on 15 October 1921. (It remains debated as to whether this was ordered by Mirza Khan.)

The cowardly betrayal was the green light for Reza Khan Mirpanj, who had seized power in Tehran in a British-backed putsch just months earlier, to send his forces to crush the movement in Gilan. The event served as a precursor to his consolidation of power and subsequent declaring of himself as shah in 1925, beginning the ‘Pahlavi’ monarchical dictatorship that would continue until February 1979.

Over one hundred years on from his tragic and untimely demise, the legacy of Haydar Khan, as well as that of the movement he helped to found and lead, remain alive and well in Iran. Furthermore, the ideals and vision for which he fought and gave his life still hold true and arguably remain as pertinent today as they did back then.

* The CPI leaders who survived Reza Khan’s dungeons would later go on to form the CPI’s successor organisation, the Tudeh (Masses) Party of Iran, on 2 October 1941.

Payam Solhtalab is a peace activist, member of the National Executive Council of the Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (CODIR), member of Liberation, and regular contributor to Liberation Journal.

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